Illinois Self-defense Case of the Month (1/2014): People v. White
In light of my upcoming first ever-Law of Self Defense Seminar to be held in Chicago in April (thanks to host David Lawson), I thought folks might find it interesting to read about an interesting self-defense court decision made each month--let's call it the "Illinois Self-Defense Case of the Month". These are really SD cases, not 2A cases--except insofar as the 2A encompasses self-defense, which I would argue is a great deal--so if this is not the correct forum, please advise. Anyway, although this is already late March I've decided to backtrack to January, so this first case comes from the first month of the year. I'll try to get February up within a few days, then follow with March sometime the first week of next month. At that point I guess I'll assess whether folks here seem to find them interesting. If so, I'll keep doing them, if not . . . well, then not. :-)
January 8, 2014
The defendant, Emerald White, was found guilty by a jury of aggravated domestic battery and sentenced to 12 ½ years in prison.
The victim was her husband, James Phillips, whom she struck with her automobile, dragging him down the road and causing severe bodily injury, including subarachnoid bleeding in his head, fractures of the skull, neck and femur, and a perineal wound.
White conceded that she had deliberately struck Phillips with her SUV, but claimed that she had done so in necessary self-defense. The jury was read a self-defense jury instruction, but nevertheless returned a guilty verdict.
Facts in Evidence
In the early morning hours White was talking with her female friend McCarvey. The SUV was backed into McCarvey’s driveway. McCarvey would testify that their conversation had finished and she had exited the vehicle when White saw someone approaching on a bicycle a block or so down the street. She testified that White expressed concern that it might be her husband, Phillips.
McCarvey described White as panicking, putting the car in gear, and taking off, fishtailing out of the driveway, turning in the direction of her husband, and striking him. In describing Phillips, McCarvey testified that he “looked mad” and “was just trying to speed down [the street] as if he was trying to catch [defendant] before she pulled off out the driveway.” She also testified that it seemed as if James was “trying to get to the driver’s side of the door.”
In a pre-trial interview of White by investigators (while, ironically, White was visiting Phillips recovering from his grave injuries in the hospital), White stated that she was sitting in her vehicle outside her friend’s house when she looked up and Phillips was riding his bicycle right in front of her. He was speaking, she said, and told the investigator that he was saying:
’Come here. Bring your a** over . . . ‘ He said, ‘bring your mother f*cking a** here.’ With a whole bunch of ‘bitches” and what nots and stuff. . . . ‘bring your mother f*cking a** over here b****.’ But when I looked up and seen him, I’m gonna go, I’m gonna go, I’m gonna go. I looked up and there he was. Well, sh*t was already started, but I just threw the b**** in drive and I went . . . I just went.
White stated that she floored the gas pedal, and her car “fishtailed out of the driveway and halfway up the block.” Looking in her rearview mirror she saw that Phillips was lying in the road. She claimed she was trying to get away from him, but had not intended to run him over.
Two additional witnesses were Jasmine and Alex Jones. Jasmine testified that they saw White’s car “pull out real fast and turn left” [in the direction of Phillips] and “the man that was standing at the end of the driveway got runned over.” Jasmine further testified that the man on the bike had been doing “[n]othing” but “sitting on his bike” before he was struck.
Alex Jones testified that he saw a “white truck pull up the driveway” and hit a man who was on a bicycle at the end of the driveway. Alex would call 911, the audio recording of which was played in court.
Prosecutors also introduced into evidence recordings of phone calls that White had made while in prison. In the course of those calls White sought to induce Phillips to provide the police with statements that would put her in a favorable light. Specifically, she wanted Phillips to tell investigators that he had been “reaching into the car” or “reaching for the door.” Such claims would contradict earlier statements Phillips had made to investigators, but White argued that didn’t matter, becase “[t]he sh*t had to sound good for [her].”
Finally, the defendant introduced evidence at trial of various past incidents of domestic violence committed by Phillips against her.
White was permitted a self-defense instruction at trial, over the Prosecution’s objections. Specifically, the judge instructed the jury that:
A person is justified in the use of force when and to the extent that he reasonably believes that such conduct is necessary to defend himself against the imminent use of unlawful force.
However, a person is justified in the use of force which is intended or likely to cause death or great bodily harm only if he reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself.
As noted, despite this instruction the jury found White guilty of aggravated domestic battery, and she was sentenced to 12 ½ years in prison, after which she appealed her conviction.
On appeal, the defendant argued that the self-defense instruction she received was incomplete because it failed to note that she could act in self-defense not just against a threat of death or grave bodily harm but also against a forcible felony [720 ILCS 5/12-3.2(a)(1)] or a vehicular invasion [720 ILCS 5/12-11.1].
For purposes of the reversal of a conviction, it is not enough that the trial court simply made a mistake, it must have been a mistake that mattered—in other words, one in which the outcome would have been different had the mistake not been made.
The appellate court here acknowledged that the trial court did not accurately instruct the jury on self-defense. They quote the elements of IL self-defense law from a state Supreme Court case, noting that the initial burden of production rests on the defendant:
[T]o instruct the jury on self-defense, the defendant must establish some evidence of each of the following elements: (1) force is threatened against a person; (2) the person threatened is not the aggressor; (3) the danger of harm was imminent; (4) the threatened force was unlawful; (5) he actually and subjectively believed a danger existed which required the use of the force applied; and (6) his beliefs were objectively reasonable.
People v. Jeffries, 646 N.E.2d 587 (IL Supreme Court 1995)
The correct jury instruction that should have been read to the jury at trial would have been:
A person is justified in the use of force when and to the extent that he reasonably believes that such conduct is necessary to defend [(himself) (another)] against the imminent use of unlawful force.
[However, a person is justified in the use of force which is intended or likely to cause death or great bodily harm only if he reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent [(imminent death or great bodily harm to [(himself) (another)]] or (the commission of [a forcible felony]).
Further, Illinois statute 720 ILCS 5/2-8 defines the forcible felonies:
'Forcible felony' means treason, first degree murder, second degree murder, predatory criminal sexual assault of a child, aggravated criminal sexual assault, criminal sexual assault, robbery, burglary, residential burglary, aggravated arson, arson, aggravated kidnaping, kidnaping, aggravated battery resulting in great bodily harm or permanent disability or disfigurement and any other felony which involves the use or threat of physical force or violence against any individual.
White argued on appeal that Phillips was attempting to commit a forcible felony upon her, in the form of domestic battery and vehicular invasion.
The first difficulty with her argument is that domestic battery is a misdemeanor, not a felony. It is true that if convicted of domestic battery, Phillips’ prior felonies would result in the offense being upgraded to a felony. The appellate court chose not to adopt this expansive approach, however. If not included in the list of forcible felonies above, they decided, it will not be considered a forcible felony for purposes of justifying the use of deadly force in self-defense.
Second, the appellate court decided that even if the domestic battery or the claimed vehicular invasion could theoretically count as a forcible felony for purposes of self-defense, the facts of this case are not sufficiently compelling to warrant a reversal on that basis. The appellate court noted that:
Here, the defendant acknowledged striking James with her vehicle. Two witnesses observed defendant’s vehicle accelerate forward and trike James, who was on a bicycle at the end of the driveway. One witness observed James doing “[n]othing” but “sitting on his bike” before he was struck. The State’s evidence further indicated defendant . . . tried to convince Phillips to add information to his statement.
This latter is a classical example of “consciousness of guilt” evidence, particularly damning to any defendant claiming self-defense.
In any case, the trial court’s jury instruction, while incomplete, was “good enough,” in the eyes of the appellate court. The jury was instructed that the use of force ‘intended or likely to cause death or great bodily harm” is justified if a defendant “reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death of great bodily harm.” During closing argument her counsel argued to the jury that White struck Phillips with her vehicle because she was “panicked for her life,” and feared “being beaten badly” by Phillips or “put in the hospital.” The appellate court concluded that:
Under these circumstances, her self-defense theory was sufficiently presented to the jury. Any error by the trial court in failing to instruct the jury on a self-defense theory based on prevention of a forcible felony was harmless.
White’s conviction and sentence were unanimously affirmed by the appellate court.
Andrew F. Branca is an MA lawyer and the author of the seminal book “The Law of Self Defense, 2nd Edition,” available at the Law of Self Defense blog, Amazon.com (paperback and Kindle), Barnes & Noble (paperback and Nook), and elsewhere.